Some things in life are scary. Like the tornado warnings we experience in our area. Or M. Night Shyamalan movies (Signs is the best). Or an unexpected letter from the IRS.
However, none of these things frighten the university students I teach. These thrill seekers go bungee-jumping, caving, and cliff diving. They sign up for internships in Latvia, serve in the slums of India, or stand up and make award-winning presentations to high-powered corporate executives. They seem to have nerves of steel.
Unless, of course, they're told, as I tell my classes, that they're required to attend a silent retreat for their senior capstone course.
Their universal response: sheer terror.
This isn't surprising for a generation that lives with a constant stream of noise and sensory input—iPods, cell phones, and computers. Their days are filled with lectures, discussions, and long conversations that extend well into the night. To think of experiencing life, even temporarily, without noise sends icy fear through their veins.
The Measure of Our Worth
While our specific reasons may differ from these techno-kids', our response to the idea of practicing silence may not. External distractions fill our lives as well: families, jobs, schedules, bills, church. Those voices may not have an electronic source, but when we're honest, we see that we have a certain "addiction" to them, not unlike the attachment that young adults have to technology. If the noise of our lives was absent, who would we be? What on earth would we do?
But that's just the beginning of our fears of silence. For example, we wonder how we can justify taking time to do "nothing" because we've come to believe that our value is measured by our productivity. And isn't taking time away for silence rather indulgent and selfish?
Even more frightening is the thought of what we might discover about ourselves or about God in the process. Staying in our comfortable world of external stimuli and distractions seems safer.
The good news is that we can ease our way into this valuable spiritual practice. We don't need to begin with a week away at a monastery or isolate ourselves in a cave. For my terror-stricken students, our silent retreat is only three hours long, a mere "bite" of silence, if you will. It's a model that can be adopted by any busy woman who knows in her gut that silence is needed, but is completely at a loss of how to go about it. Starting small is a wise approach to any new spiritual practice. So if you're new to silence, go easy on yourself. God's patience is unlimited as we determine to connect with him in meaningful ways.
A Gentle Plan
Making the time for a period of silence is the first challenge. You have to be ruthless with your calendar and believe that your world will carry on just fine without you for a while.
Think about where you might go. Find a place where the level of noise and amount of distraction is at a minimum, such as a particularly old sanctuary. Those great vaulted ceilings were designed to help us confront the vastness of God and to appreciate a sacred space. Of course other places will do: a bench at a local park, a quiet room in your home (as long as you can absolutely guarantee you won't be interrupted—you need to turn off the phone, and perhaps do a quick clean up of the room beforehand. Not all external stimuli are audible!).
Resist the temptation to bring a vast collection of "stuff" with you. You only need your Bible and/or prayer book, journal, pen, and perhaps a water bottle and light snack, depending on your time frame. This light load will help you believe the truth that the practice of silence is not about being productive.
Making the transition from a busy world to a quiet one is the next challenge. It's like walking to our cars after attending a rock concert. Our ears are still buzzing from the intense amplification, and we can't hear so well. In the same way, when first entering into silence, we can't expect that our attention to God will be acute right off the bat. A few slow, deep breaths can help with that transition.
The Barrage of Distractions
It is a guarantee that we'll be attacked by a barrage of thoughts and mental distractions that will threaten to throw us off from the beginning. Henri Nouwen likens this to neighbors who keep coming by and knocking on your door. I encourage my students to have a pen and pad of paper nearby as they settle their bodies into the spot they've chosen, and simply to write down every distracting thought that comes into their heads. There's something about writing down all of these thoughts in an ongoing list that helps to manage these mental distractions. It's as if we're literally taking them out of our brains and putting them in a holding bin for a while. By writing them down, we can be assured that all of those important items will not be forgotten, but can be accessed later when our silent time is over.
From this point on the only thing we need to "do" in our silent time is to remind ourselves of the purpose of this time: to listen, to pay attention, to rest in the love of God. Naturally, Scripture plays a vital part, but not as something to be studied or manipulated to fit our needs. The Psalms and the Gospels are sources of nourishment during silence. Lectio Divina, the practice of prayerfully reading Scripture, of feasting on it like a fine meal, is a good way of resting in the love of God and listening for his voice.
There are so many other ways to truly enjoy silence, to let God heal you through it. Take a walk and observe the glories of creation and the delightful mosaic of humanity; jot down a long chain of the blessings in your life; use a breath prayer—a brief sentence that succinctly articulates the state of your heart: "Lord Jesus, take away my fear," "Father, give me rest," "Jesus, I am yours." Or resist the need to "talk at" God all day and let him do the talking. Choose one or two of these things and let the Spirit lead.
My terrified students invariably come away from their silent retreat a bit stunned that their fears were all for naught. When we ease into silence we learn it isn't a waste of time but, in fact, is one of the most productive things we can do.
Caring for our souls isn't indulgent, for it isn't only we who benefit, but also those we mean to serve. Seeing the truth about ourselves and about God sets us free to be healthy, whole, and of better service to the world. Relinquishing control of our lives for a few hours humbles us before God. Silence puts us in our place, reminding us that God is God and we are not. And that is a refreshing, relieving bit of news.
Ultimately, silence teaches us what the psalmist Asaph discovered when he entered "the sanctuary of God": "Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever" (Psalm 73:25-26).
If these are the results of silence, can we afford to be without it?